Socialism, Radicalism, and the Jewish Labor Movement in Los Angeles: History and Historiography
Caroline Luce (UCLA)
For the past two years of my graduate career, I have been researching bagel production and consumption as a means of exploring cultural representations of bagels and their relationship to American Jewish identity. In the early phases of the project, I focused entirely on bagel baking in New York, following the bulk of cultural and historical commentary on bagels that located the bagels’ origins among the Jewish community of the Lower East Side. Indeed, after 33 years of struggling, the bagel bakers of New York even achieved their own Union in 1937, Local 338 of the Bakery and Confectionary Workers International Union of the American Federation of Labor. For over 20 years, Local 338 dominated the bagel trade, both in the greater metropolitan region of New York, as well as in New Jersey and Connecticut, toppled only by the invention of an automated bagel baking machine in 1962. And yet I was in Los Angeles, where my neighborhood, like many others is covered with bagel bakeries and delis, suggesting to me that Jewish baking unions may have controlled the bagel baking industry in Los Angeles just as they did in New York. Puzzled by the willingness of historians and professors of bagel lore to limit their studies of bagels to New York, I decided to explore bagels and Jewish baking in Los Angeles and the West as a means of expanding the story. I chose to change my focus to bagel baking in Los Angeles, searching for evidence of a similar influence of the Jewish labor movement in the baking industry here, though very little had been written about the subject. I found a Yiddish language baking union branch of the AFL, Local 453, I could find no evidence of a bagel baking-specific unions. Instead, I stumbled upon a far more intriguing incident in 1926: a curious Jewish bakers’ strike.
On Labor Day in 1926 (May 1st), the members of the Hebrew Bakers Association, in conjunction with the powerful Merchant and Manufacturers Association of Los Angeles, announced their commitment to the “American” or “open shop” plan, and began hiring non-Union, sometimes non-Jewish employees. Insulted by the Association’s timing, the members of Local 453, a Yiddish-language branch of the Bakery and Confectionery Workers International Union refused to accept the new employees. The Association in turn refused to accept the high wage and benefits standards of the Union, threatening to fire them all. As a result, nearly 100 Jewish bakers walked off the job, striking for higher wages and fixed hours, vacation time for holidays including Labor Day, regulations over the amount of time the bakery owners could spend in the shop, and rights to share work and distribute hours to their underemployed colleagues.
I recognized the concept of work-sharing programs from my studies of the bagel bakers. At their jubilee celebration in 1940, they heralded the “splendid organization and work” that had allowed them to share work and survive while others “[fell] victim of a general depression” in the 1930s, holding that theirs was the only union that “found employment for everyone of its members.” In the final phrases of their anniversary souvenir pamphlet, they declared:
“The Beigel Bakers’ Union, Local 338, holds sacred the socialistic principle of dividing the work equally among the workers. The very same system is deeply rooted in the lives of all Jewish Bakers Unions and is the base on which the Beigel Bakers Union exists. The Beigel Bakers’ Union came to life through suffering and strife and therefore responds to every call of the socialistic progressive and labor movements with loyalty and brotherly love.”
That the bakers of Los Angeles had demanded the right to execute such work-sharing programs suggested to me that they too may have built their desire to divide work equally on socialistic principles of the Jewish labor movement. Local 338’s claim that all Jewish Bakers Unions shared their “splendid” socialistic principles seemed to have credence, and my intellectual curiosity intensified.
Of 15 bakeries that employed members of Local 453, or “Hebrew bakeries” as the Los Angeles Times dubbed them, 5 bakeries sided with the workers. Led by the “union owned and controlled” Cooperative Bakery of Temple Street, the five bakeries rejected the “open shop” plan, instead declaring their commitment to the cause of the workers. Co-operative Bakery was affiliated with the Yiddusha Folkschule, a Yiddish-language based social and cultural center established in 1910 on Temple Street that according to The Jewish Merchant functioned as:
“…the center of the Zionist groups, including other societies whose main social life circled around the Jewish nationalistic precepts and the Cooperative Hall…the center of the leftist movement.”
Gussie Ayeroff, an active member of the Folkschule, described it a bit differently, asserting instead that while associated with the Zionist movement, the Folkschule, “was a general community institution serving the surrounding neighborhood,” offering after school care and workers’ education classes. The Folkschule was closely connected to the Workman’s Circle and Labor Zionist Farband, their organizations often pooling resources, sharing speakers and teachers as well as space and material resources. Classes and lectures emphasized empowering ideals of individual improvement and the collective redemption of the Jewish people.Just as Local 453’s demand for work sharing programs suggested their commitment to socialistic principles, so too their affiliation with the Folkschule suggested that the bakers were embedded within a larger community in Los Angeles committed to Yiddish, where socialism and labor politics fused with Jewish identity and nationalism.
Cooperative Bakery, created by Union members and representatives of the Folkschule and other workmen’s groups, encouraged Union workers to use their facilities and expand their operation to challenge the influence of the “bosses” in the Association. Cooperative Bakery became the center of bakers’ Union strike, coordinating Union members as well as mobilizing other members of the community to join them in solidarity. The bakers’ wives and other “leftist women… of the communistic line, [who] sincerely believed that by do doing they were hastening the realization of the social revolution,” joined in the strike. They picketed the other bakeries, waged a house-to-house campaign to encourage the women of Boyle Heights to buy union-label bread only, and pressured the bakers who took the place of the strikers. The strike thereby represented a powerful convergence of consumers and producers, women and Union members directing their campaign towards both the buyers and bakers of baked goods within the Jewish community. By the second day of the strike, they had persuaded Louis Felhandler, the owner of Warsaw Bakery, to break from the Association and sign a Union contract.
Not all members of the Los Angeles community came out in support of the bakers, however, and reflected in the Los Angeles Times’ headline on May 3rd that the “Ovens [were] Not Cooled By Walkout.” The Association bakeries reported that their non-Union replacements were, “producing better bread and bakestuffs” in the Union’s absence. They charged that Local 453’s members with spreading “radical expressions” about them and threatened to sue Mr. Felhandler until the Union’s lawyer, Chaim Shapiro, vowed to represent him. Shapiro famously represented large groups of I.W.W. members and radical anarchists including Raul Palma when arrested by Los Angeles authorities. A long time member and organizer of the Socialist Party, Shapiro ran for Mayor in 1932 and lieutenant Governor on Upton Sinclair’s ticket in 1934, both as a Socialist Party candidate. He was also highly involved in the Jewish community, integral in founding the City of Hope and Yiddish-language political and literary clubs. Shapiro’s involvement with Cooperative Bakery’s efforts further confirmed their commitment to the socialist principles and revolutionary labor activism of the Jewish labor movement.
Rather than pursue a legal battle, the Association proposed to form an “impartial committee” of community leaders to assist the contract negotiations. The committee included business and civic leaders from the Brooklyn Avenue district of Boyle Heights, two of whom were members of the Workman’s Circle and thereby “sympathetic to labor” as well as Rabbi Solomon Neches of the longtime religious leader of the Congregation Talmud Torah (or the Breed Street Shul), Boyle Heights’ oldest orthodox congregation. The committee met with representatives from both the Association and the Union, and after two weeks, the strike was resolved and a new contract drafted. The Union had been granted slight increases in holiday hours and layoff policies, and maintained their high wages, although many of their demands were ignored, including their demands for equal division of work. As the Union members returned to work, Cooperative Bakery’s leadership role in the Union faded. The Bakery was taken over by Brooklyn Rye while the Folkschule collapsed many of its social and cultural activities into the Soto-Michigan (Boyle Heights) Jewish Community Center that opened in the early 1930s. Socialist members of the Labor Zionists and Workmen’s Circle combined their resources, forming the Jewish Socialist Farband on North St. Louis Street. Both The Jewish Merchant and The Los Angeles Times in turn celebrated the victory of the “American” or “open shop” plan.
It seemed puzzling to me that the Los Angeles Times so willingly declared the strike a victory of the business interests and merchants. The bold attempt at an industry take-over led by Cooperative Bakery suggested to me that the Jewish bakers had successfully achieved the kind of unity and community solidarity that had made for the success of the bagel bakers and the Jewish labor movement in New York. Certainly the new contract failed to satisfy some of their demands, particularly their desires to institute work-sharing programs that would allow them to spread hours and increase the number of employed Union bakers. But even in their ability to protect their wages and benefits in the face of the “open shop,” Local 453's strike seemed a success to me. Considering the hardships faced by other industrial unions in the 1920s, the bakers’ very ability to maintain even the recognition of their Union was an impressive achievement. In the Bakery and Confectionery Workers International Union’s history, A Vision of Unity, Stuart Kaufman celebrated the “tight organization of bakeries in the Jewish ghetto” shown in the 1926 Los Angeles strike as an exception to Los Angeles’ “reputation as a ‘scab town.’” Their Cooperative Bakery and its work sharing practices had allowed them to supplement production, supporting their strong opposition of their employers, and making their resistance to the “open shop” a success. While A Vision of Unity was published on behalf of the Bakery and Confectionery workers and is undeniably pro-labor, the perspective it offers on the strike stands in direct contrast to that of the Los Angeles Times, promoting the notion that the strike of 1926 was a success.
Yet both accounts’ suffer from a similar preoccupation with successes and failures, a tendency to quantify the achievements of Unions along measurable categories of gains and losses. Rather than explore the bakers’ strike as a social movement, an expression of community or collective identity, they focus tangible factors such as pay scales and work hours as a means of gauging the strike’s success. That the Cooperative Bakery even attempted to topple the “open-shop” interests in such a notorious “open shop” town shows that they believed the Los Angeles Jewish community would offer the support and solidarity necessary to achieve their aims. That non-Union community members, particularly female consumers, joined their efforts implies that Union members were not alone in their identification to the cause of the Jewish bakers. And that Cooperative and the five other bakeries swayed Warsaw bakery to their cause indicates that solidarity with the workers was for some more powerful than their business-related interests. The collective effort exhibited in the bakers’ strike in 1926 suggests that the bakers’ strike was more than just a battle for tangible goals; the bakers’ strike was an expression of a collective identity embedded within the Jewish community of Los Angeles. Rather than dismiss the efforts of the bakers as a failure to topple the “open shop,” this paper will instead explore the baking strike of 1926 as a means of uncovering that collective identity expressed in the Jewish labor movement in Los Angeles.
The response of the Los Angeles Times regarding the failure of the Jewish bakers’ strike of 1926 to topple the “American plan” may not seem surprising to those who study the labor movement in Los Angeles. Historians have long emphasized the power of business interests, such as the Merchant and Manufacturers Association and the Chamber of Commerce, and the social and cultural influence of the open-shop proponents particularly Harrison Gray Otis and the Los Angeles Times. The classic historiographic paradigm in regards to the labor movement in Los Angeles was best articulated by Louis and Richard Perry in 1963:
“With the possible exception of San Francisco during the 1920s, it is doubtful is the labor movement has ever faced antiunion employer groups so powerful and well organized as those in Los Angeles. Although the open-shop or American plan was popular over much of the country between World War I and the Great Depression, it was virtually a law in Los Angeles for nearly half a century.”
Perry and Perry offered a similarly dismal account of the bakers’ strike of 1926, holding that Local 453 “lost ground to the open shop.” In depicting Los Angeles’ labor movement as a contest between the contending forces of labor and capital, Perry and Perry found little cause to legitimize the attempts of the Cooperative Bakery and Local 453 or to celebrate their efforts, instead tabulating the event as a “net loss.”
Certainly the competitive treatment of the labor movement in Perry and Perry’s study has been amended in recent years, as historians have chosen to focus on the agency of the workers and attempts like that of the bakers’ rather than on the power of business leaders alone. Ruth Milkman’s work, L.A. Story: Immigrant Workers and the Future of the Labor Movement, for example, highlights what workers were able to achieve in spite of ethnic and racial differences rather than solely noting how those tensions quelled the potential of broad-based, multi-ethnic unionization effort. Others have concentrated on specific industries and segments of the labor force in Los Angeles. In Cannery Women, Cannery Lives, for example, Vicki Ruiz focuses on the canning and packing workers of the United Cannery, Agricultural, Packing, and Allied Workers of America (UCAPAWA), exploring the interrelationship of work, culture, and gender. Her industry-specific concentration allows her to explore multiple racial and ethnic communities within the workforce. She in turn shows how Russian Jewish immigrants cultivated relationships with their Mexican immigrant co-workers around their common status as cannery workers and often as working mothers. These cross-ethnic networks contributed to the success of UCAPAWA and in turn flavored the multi-ethnic neighborhoods in which the workers lived, like Boyle Heights. Yet while Jewish workers are incorporated into studies like Ruiz’s, they are not the primary focus of her study, her discussion lacking any suggestion of a uniquely Jewish labor movement. While her study expands our understanding of the labor movement in Los Angeles, it contributes minimally to an understanding of labor movement within the Jewish community.
Neither have historians of Jewish Los Angeles made the labor movement within the Jewish community the primary focus of their work. Much of the history of the Jewish experience in California and the West highlights the success stories of Jewish businessmen, politicians, and religious and civic leaders. Part of the reason for this “top-down” focus can be explained by the “newness” of the history: prior to the 1950s, most of the available histories of Jewish life in Los Angeles were memoirs and personal accounts written either by wealthy business and civic leaders or by rabbis cataloguing the histories of their synagogues and congregations. As a result, many of the early histories of the community focused around the elites of the Jewish community, offering few details about the experiences of poorer, working-class Jews. As the Jewish population rapidly expanded in the 1950s and 1960s, several community-based organizations helped support and expand the scholarship related to the history of Jewish life in Southern California. In commemoration of the hundredth anniversary of organized Los Angeles Jewry in 1954, Justin G. Turner helped to organize the Southern California Jewish Historical Society. With the Society’s support and the backing of the Jewish Community Foundation of the Jewish Federation Council, Norton B. Stern launched the Western States Jewish History Quarterly, in 1968, and served as its founding editor with his associate, Rabbi William Kramer. And in 1970, with the support of the American Jewish History Center and the Jewish Federation Council of Greater Los Angeles, Max Vorspan and Lloyd Gartner wrote their seminal work, The History of the Jews of Los Angeles, providing one of the first comprehensive accounts of the Jewish experience in California from the early days of statehood and a foundation for future scholars to build upon.
However comprehensive Vorspan and Gartner’s account, their work makes only a few mentions of labor activism and radical politics within the Jewish community, and no mention at all of the Cooperative Bakery or their efforts in 1926. They refer to a population of Jews for whom “Yiddish represented a Jewish cultural ideal associated with the varieties of Jewish socialism and secularism,” but describe their clubs and organizations as [places] “where considerable pro-Communism had been entrenched since the 1920s.” Communism is similarly associated to the labor organization efforts during the Great Depression when “union[s] under Communist dominance with heavily Jewish membership…broke through the anti-union barriers in [their] trades.” Vorspan and Gartner’s reliance on the communist versus anti-communist dichotomy in their treatment of the “Yiddishists” limits their analysis of both the ideology and experiences of the “Yiddishists” themselves. Instead they focus on Yiddish cultural life, highlighting the work of Yiddish-language writers, playwrights, and literary societies in their exploration of the Jewish immigrant population of Temple Street and Boyle Heights. Their account offers incredible details about the various benevolent societies, charitable organizations, social and educational institutions, and business groups spread throughout Los Angeles, while only briefly dealing with radicalism, socialism, and the Jewish labor movement.
Vorspan and Gartner’s were not the first members of Los Angeles’ Jewish community to associate radicals and labor activists to communism. As survivors of the McCarthy Era, both witnessed virulent anti-communism crusades in the 1950s, within the academic community and without. Both too had survived Upton Sinclair’s End Poverty in California (EPIC) campaign for governor, during which a massive smear campaign characterized the plan of Sinclair and his running mate Chaim Shapiro (the lawyer of Local 453), as “Communism, cleverly disguised, but deliberately designed to Russianize California state government." Sinclair and Shapiro were supported by the Young Communist League and the Communist Party in California, so their characterizations as communists were not entirely inaccurate. Yet their communism was further associated with tyranny, oppression and the fascist regimes of Hitler and Mussolini. Jewish civic, business and religious leaders, along with the Jewish cultural elites of Hollywood, participated in both crusades, reflecting a strongly anti-radical portion of the community, particularly among Los Angeles’s Jewish elite. This is not to say that Vorspan and Gartner’s characterization echoed the polarized, paranoid, “good versus evil” tone of these anti-communism campaigns, so much as to say that their lack of emphasis on Jewish radicals and labor activists reflects the enduring cultural influence of these anti-radical radical campaigns.
Yet the influence of anti-radicalism is certainly not the only reason for Vorspan and Gartner’s emphasis. The work of Vorspan, Gartner, like that of Kramer, Stern, and others, tended to highlight the particular successes of Jews in the rough-and-tumble atmosphere of the American West. Their early investigations into and advocacy for the history of the Jewish experience in the West coincided with expansion of the interest in and scholarship about the history of the American West at large. While Frederick Jackson Turner launched the field in 1893 with his “frontier thesis,” scholars in the 1960s and 1970s found new enthusiasm and new approaches in altering Turner’s frontier-based paradigm. Influenced by the rise of ethnic studies departments across the country, historians increasingly deconstructed the “imagined west” of cowboys, Indians, gold miners and railroad tycoons, emphasizing instead the American West’s unique, multiethnic heritage. Vorspan, Gartner and their cohort may in turn have been seeking to emphasize aspects of the Jewish experience that were unique to the West, especially Southern California. As contemporary commentators and historians alike had long associated the success of the Jewish labor movement with New York, they may have sought instead to highlight features that showcased their community’s particular achievements in their History of the Jews of Los Angeles.
Indeed the sheer volume of historical accounts and studies of the Jewish labor movement in New York, when compared to the paucity of information about the movement in Los Angeles, supports the conclusion that the achievements Jewish labor movement’s in New York were unparalleled. Rather than point out the comparative shortcomings of the Jewish labor movement in Los Angeles, Vorspan and Gartner instead showcased the achievements of business and civic leaders, what they believed made Los Angeles unique. Certainly the Jewish communities of New York and Los Angeles varied widely and indeed were quite different, and the efforts of the labor movement took different forms and had different effects. Yet such a quantitative comparison, albeit unintentional or subconscious, obscures the existence of a Jewish labor movement in Los Angeles, undermining the Jewish community’s identification with and commitment to the labor struggles like that of the bakers.
A different type of comparative perspective can be insightful in explaining the collective consciousness displayed in the bakers’ strike, however. Rather than compare the two communities based on their successes and failures, we can instead explore elements of the Jewish labor movement that helped to create a common identification to the cause of the Jewish workers in New York and explore comparatively the presence of those elements in Los Angeles. By applying the models historians have used to reconstruct the influence of Jewish labor movement in New York beyond its successes and failures, we can redeem the significance of the Jewish labor movement in the Los Angeles community.
In his groundbreaking study of the Jewish Labor Movement in New York, A Fire in Their Hearts, Tony Michels reconstructed a collective consciousness and common identity among Yiddish speaking socialists, particularly Russian intellectuals and labor activists on the Lower East Side. This “Russian Colony” in turn helped to organize the structure, ideology, education, and internal framework that mobilized hundreds of thousands of Jewish workers in New York, a mass movement now known as the Jewish Labor Movement. Emphasizing the significance of Yiddish and socialism in that movement, his study not only traces the existence of unions and illustrates the socialist influence upon them, but also shows how socialism transcended simple organizational influence and instead became the “climate of opinion” throughout the Jewish community of New York. Michels bases his methodology on Habermas’ concepts of the public sphere, alleging that socialism’s prevalence in the public culture of the Lower East Side operated so strongly as that “’something like a public opinion was formed.’” Michels evidences socialism’s influence both within labor unions and literary societies as well as outside formal organizational structures, showing how New York Jews “forged a new collective identity through socialism’s idioms, ideas and organizations.” His study shows that that socialist tradition was not simply imported from Europe, and that advocacy for a Yiddish cultural renaissance and workers’ revolution began instead within the immigrant community of New York. Their activities encouraged the involvement of intellectuals, writers, and other non-laboring members of the working-class Jewish community in New York, particularly women, thus expanding the cultural influence of the labor movement beyond its organizational and institutional forms. Michels’ approach highlights the community constructed in the movement, his “public culture” bearing striking similarity to the collective consciousness displayed in the bakers’ strike of 1926.
Certainly the bakers strike reveals important elements of such a "public culture" thriving in Los Angeles, serving as a display of community solidarity that included producers and consumers, and the influence of socialism and socialist ideals within that community. My hope was that I would be able to present a comprehensive account of the Jewish labor movement in Los Angeles and the place of the bakers’ within that movement for you today. Unfortunately despite months of research, I am only able to fill in parts of the story. My studies of the bakers’ strike offered a glimpse into an entire community within the Jewish population of Los Angeles, one that however small, mounted a powerful resistance to the “open shop.” Further exploration of that community could enhance not only my studies of bagel baking, but also our understanding of Yiddish culture in the American West, the politics of labor and radicalism within the Jewish community, and the multi-ethnic neighborhoods of early 20th century Los Angeles. An application of Michels’ approach to Los Angeles thereby illuminated a community that can opening interesting new avenues for further research that I had not anticipated.
Crucial to Michels’ model was the group of Yiddish writers and publishers working in New York who effectively bridged the gap between radical intellectuals and Jewish workers by “speaking to Moyshe." He celebrates the efforts of Abraham Cahan and his Forverts journal, as well as the Yiddish-language lectures and social events he hosted. While Forverts was circulated in California, the Yiddish-speaking community of Los Angeles had a publication of their own, K?alifornyer Idishe Sht?ime or the California Jewish Voice. The offices of the Voice were but a few blocks away from the Co-operative bakery and the Folkschule, located on Brooklyn Avenue in the heart of Boyle Heights. While other Yiddish-language publications had been imported from the Eastern cities, in 1922 the Voice became an important part of locally organized Yiddish literary community. While the B’nai B’rith Messenger was far more widely distributed, one Yiddishist described the Voice as, “the only paper read by Yiddish-speaking Jews,” the only paper where they could, “get soul satisfaction.” In addition to the Voice, in the early 1920s Aaron Ayeroff established one of the earliest Yiddish and English publishing houses, Economy Printing Company, to support several short-lived Yiddish monthlies. Indeed, his wife Gussie and several of her friends created the first Yiddish reading group that laid the groundwork for the Yiddish Culture Club that, like the bakery, was associated with the Workman’s Circle, Labor Zionist Farband, and the Folkschule. Co-operative Hall served as a meeting place and social center for both the bakers and other Unions and workingmen’s groups as well as for Yiddish writers and intellectuals, suggesting that their interactions were quite intimate.
This Yiddish-language literary and intellectual community merits further historical exploration. To date, there has been very little research on the California Jewish Voice, its editors and contributors, perhaps because few editions of The Voice are available for such a study. The Voice remained a Yiddish-language publication for less than 10 years, transitioning into publication in English under the leadership of Sam Gach around 1930, and was subsequently absorbed by the B’nai B’rith Messenger, suggesting to many historians that one could assume the Messenger and the Voice offered similar perspectives and coverage of the Jewish community of Los Angeles. And yet while reporting on the plight of Eastern European Jews and charitable efforts to help the poor in Los Angeles, the Messenger made no mention of the bakers’ strike in 1926, and very rarely covered local strikes and Unionization drives. As self-proclaimed Yiddishist Harry Rotblatt remarked, “the Messenger represented a different kind of Jew…with no national ideals or aspects,” rather than representing, “our movement,” the Messenger spoke for the “assimilationists.” In order to better understand the community captured in the bakers’ strike of 1926, historians must further explore the opinions, events, and perspectives offered by the Voice in its Yiddish-language form. Such studies can in turn add to existing research on Yiddish literature, music and art in Los Angeles, and thereby enhance our understanding of Yiddish culture in California and the West.
Exploring the reception of the labor movement and the Yiddishists within the Jewish community outside of the Voice and the Folkschule merits similar historical exploration. Implicit in Michels’ account is the relationship between the radical socialists of his “Russian Colony” and representatives of the local government, New York’s religious leadership, and “uptown” community leaders. That reception seems to have been quite different in the Los Angeles community, offering insight as to the politics of labor and radicalism among L.A. Jews. Perhaps the most emphasized differences between the labor movement’s reception in New York and Los Angeles has been the local government and police force, particularly the corruption and power of the LAPD’s “Red Squad.” As previously mentioned, members of the “uptown” Jewish community often sided with these powerfully anti-labor forces, Jewish business leaders largely rejecting the efforts of Jewish workers and unions. And yet the “impartial committee” formed during the strike of 1926 suggests that not all leaders of the Jewish community were as unilaterally pro-business. Similar arbitration committees had been used to solve labor disputes in other areas, but the composition of the committee in 1926 is particular revealing, specifically the involvement of Rabbi Solomon Neches.
In his study of New York, Michels repeatedly refers to the Orthodox rabbis’ rejection of the socialist leanings of their congregants, arguing that by failing to offer an alternative response to their day-to-day concerns, rabbis weakened their position in the Jewish community, creating a vacuum of leadership that was filled by radical activists and organizers. Neches and other religious leaders in Los Angeles seem to have responded differently, actively engaging in their congregants’ struggles to balance their religious beliefs with the more worldly, secular concerns of the labor movement. Some Jewish religious leaders respond ideologically, adapting their sermons to appeal to their more radical congregants. In a sermon delivered in the days following the bombing of the Los Angeles Times, for example, Rabbi Edelman criticized both the “false teachings” of anarchism, and “the other extreme which deserves censure… selfish economic interests and complacency to the poor.” Edelman befriended the Ayeroffs and other socialist congregants just as Neches worked closely with the Yiddish-language clubs and organizations surrounding his Breed Street Shul. The relationship between these religious leaders and the community represented in the bakers’ strike can not only offer insight about the history of the Jewish labor movement in Los Angeles, but can also help us to understand Los Angeles’ unique religious trajectory. The abilities of the religious leaders in the Jewish community of Los Angeles to work with community members involved in the labor movement suggests a interesting connection between the politics of labor and religious adaptation and change in the American West, a connection that can inform studies of the Jewish community, the relationship between religion and the labor movement, and the religious history of the American West.
Finally, further study of L.A.’s Jewish labor movement can enhance studies of the multi-ethnic neighborhoods and the structure of community of early 20th century Los Angeles. While Michels shows how socialists in New York channeled the youthful enthusiasm of young immigrants and the American-born generation rising from within the Jewish population, an application of his model to Los Angeles suggests that the younger generation had a different experience there, influenced by the ethnic and racial diversity of the neighborhoods in which they lived. The Los Angeles Jewish community offered dozens of clubs and organizations to its younger members, an abundance that, considering the size of the Jewish population, may have spread their commitments and energies. And yet while religious and civic leaders as well as labor organizers and socialists worked to direct the social activities of younger Jews inward, encouraging their participation in Jewish social clubs and service groups, many in the community lamented the younger generations’ “disinterestedness.” Certainly their lament was shared by other Jewish communities, including New York, and other immigrant communities across the country. And yet in Los Angeles, their lament may not simply have been owed to the youth’s “disinterestedness” but rather their disinterest in separate Jewish organizations. The younger generation of Jews’ greater experience with diversity, that resulted from unique patterns of industrial, geographic, and demographic growth in Los Angeles, may have encouraged their involvement in social groups, clubs, and organizations beyond those offered by the Jewish community, challenging the ethnic boundaries of community we often take for granted among Jewish immigrant communities.
Mark Wild has shown how the experience of young immigrants and American-born immigrants in Los Angeles the 1920s and 30s was uniquely flavored by the overwhelming diversity they experienced in their neighborhoods, particularly while at school. At Soto Street Elementary School in Boyle Heights, for example, Mexicans students outnumbered their “non-English speaking” immigrant counterparts, Jewish students thereby inhabiting a unique educational environment. Temple Street School initiated an Americanization program for Yiddish-speaking students, as well as Spanish and Japanese speakers, isolating them in separate, often remedial classes. The intimacy forged at school often encouraged students to challenge existing ethno-racial boundaries, and many built strong connections across linguistic barriers. While Wild points out that these connections only rarely translated into organized efforts and activism, they did encourage solidarity amongst the students, particularly in opposition to their teachers. At Jefferson High for example, tensions erupted between the students and the faculty when a student prepared to give a graduation speech on Upton Sinclair’s Brass Check, Sinclair even visiting a gathering of students as part of his project “The Goslings, a study in American Schools.” Young Jews were highly involved in the Young People’s Socialist League, the Voice reporting weekly on the “The Youth Movement” and the League’s happenings. Wild’s research, along with many others exploring the multi-ethnic neighborhoods of Los Angeles including Vicki Ruiz, suggests that young Jewish radicals played powerful roles in multi-ethnic Unions and political movements in the West. Further studies of the Jewish Labor movement can thereby enhance research about these multi-ethnic political coalitions and the neighborhoods from which they emerged.
An application of Michels’ model to Los Angeles is thereby most effective in exposing the uniqueness of the Jewish labor movement and the Jewish experience in Los Angeles, as well as the uniqueness of the urban experience in Los Angeles itself. The diversity and intimacy of neighborhoods like Boyle Heights challenges traditional characterizations of immigrant and working-class culture, community and identity, showing how individuals moved between and within the separate various spaces of work, neighborhood and home. Indeed studies of the politics of the labor movement within the Jewish community of Los Angeles can offer insight as to how a specific urban context people can affect how people experience both tradition and change. Demographics, personalities and individual characters aside, the bakers’ strike exposes how the unique composition of Los Angeles as a city, how its political and economic development as well as its physical, spatial order, changed the experience of its residents. While early historians of Los Angeles Jewry attempted to capture that uniqueness by privileging certain parts of the Jewish community over others, further study of the Jewish labor movement shows that we can learn more about the uniqueness of the Jewish experience in Los Angeles by exploring all of the its parts and observing how they collide, intersect, overlap, and interact.